We Are The Best
, November 28th, 2011 08:08
To celebrate their decade-long journey from "playing small clubs to small groups of stunned individuals" to "playing to small groups of stunned individuals in small clubs", The Chap have put out a 'best of' that no one will buy. Its title is no idle boast, though, as the lucky stunned will attest. I became one shortly after the troupe rambled on to a Venn Festival stage in 2006, looking as if they'd come on holiday by mistake.
A rangy frontman in shirt, tie and shorts led them through unlikely dance routines to a techno beat. A polite keyboardist drove a group chant about the singer’s eyes hurting due to too much looking, over a fierce cello groove. A Walter Becker lookalike smacked the shit out of his drums, conjuring turbo disco rhythms. And a bass player with the air of an overworked IT manager viciously berated their performance after each song (“sorry, that was rubbish, absolute RUBBISH!”). Such perverse rearranging of the 00s dance-rock furniture suggested they were classically trained and avant-aware. But more striking was the way – whichever peculiar tack each track took – you always felt as if you'd eaten a full pop song. The lyrics were short, absurd litanies of tiny ambitions and quotidian experiences, repeated until they took on surprising emotional weight. Infectious hooks shone through, despite being draped with synth scree or clacking strings. It was catchy, convulsive, confrontational – and of course confusing enough for most people to blank out after they’d left the building.
But here was the weirdest part: they spoke and sang in mellifluous Radio 4 tones. The pop brain isn’t equipped to process that. We can all guess what lurks behind the deceived pronunciation of mockney skifflers or mid-Atlantic punk-funkers from Surrey, but to have it rubbed in your face like that? Unusual. I began to see in them the return of the repressed, the id of the indie scene. A monster turning up at festival gatherings, making it Pimms O’Clock and blurting out the wannabe cool kids’ dirty secrets in their true voices, while getting downer and dirtier than those kids would ever dare.
Take ‘Woop Woop’, which lists aloud the inexorable progress their competition at the time furtively craved – "Garage rock; album launch; chart success; interview; New York, Tokyo; hotel room; loneliness; suicide" – then celebrates the tragic adventure with a brassy fanfare. The Chap’s vocal output is equal parts strait-laced squareness and involuntary guttural ejaculation: ‘Le Theme’ is purely growls and screams, and other never-hits are peppered with “Hargh!” "Hoo-hah!" “Swoosh!” “Pif-af!” and more. (‘Long Distance Lovin’, from 2005’s Ham, takes the Tourette’s tendency still further, looping whistles into a hooky outlet for the loverman’s anxiety.) Rather than a neat postmodern exercise in the mould of The Flying Lizards, The Chap are surrealists red in tooth and claw.
All of which is strangely satisfying on a gut level, but often emotion also oozes out. As on, well, ‘(I Am) Oozing Emotion’, their first nearly-hit. The full lyrics – “Give me a contract, give me a sign / give me a t-t-t-t-baby / I've been waiting for so long / I am oozing emotion” – are delivered with a New Orderish vulnerability as disco rock sweeps your feet out. They could as easily refer to marriage and kids as to a record deal. The Chap can do swoony (‘Auto Where To’ is their ‘Cars and Girls’) and sublime. On ‘Clissold Park’ Claire Hope repeats a list of innocuous aspirations (daily running, baking) as a loose, droney ambience builds to a gorgeous tumult; it begins to contain multitudes.
Mainly, though, this miss parade reveals what a nice line in economic, funky pop songs they’ve always had, from the ‘Low Rider’-ish heart of ‘I Got Flattened By A Pig Farmer’ to their jaunty ode to the pioneering electronic composer, ‘Walter Wendy Carlos’. They take a more rigid, airtight electro-funk direction on ‘Ethnic Instrument’ and ‘Remember Elvis Rex’, and go sweeter on ‘We Work In Bars’ and ‘Even Your Friend’ (both from Well Done Europe, their Gaucho).
One small problem it also makes clear is that they're only the best until they tell you so. ‘Fun and Interesting’, with its "My generation needs another me" boast, is something of a shark jump and – like ‘Proper Rock’ – seems to second-guess The Chap's character. Thanks to the accents, when they try to play it too straight they can bring to mind the comedy songs ex-public school comedians like Chris Morris and Victor Lewis Smith used to knock out.
Still, the rest is gold. And the good news is, they’re carrying on. The obligatory new track here, ‘Campaign Trail’, augurs well. It's just a catchy, wretched, screamed chorus (“I love you / but it’s no use / cause we’re dying!”) in a deep space of minimal techno and disco strings. The balance between rough and smooth is just right. So buy this album, then buy Ham and Mega Breakfast, two of the best of their time. Well done The Chap.